By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
After a pair of emotion-filled, exhausting and exciting conference wins this past weekend, another match today would seem like the perfect time for a letdown from the Montana State University-Northern volleyball team.
Except for one thing, the Skylights opponent is the University of Great Falls.
Although it has only been three years since the Argos restarted their volleyball program, in those three years, a tense, heated rivalry has developed with the Skylights. The two teams will renew it tonight at 7 at the MSU-Northern gymnasium.
"It's never tough for our girls to get up for UGF," said head coach Lisa Handley. "It's developed into a big rivalry"
In the past, it may have been difficult to label the matchup a rivalry. Rivalries are supposed to be even, but for the most part, it's been pretty one-sided in terms of wins and losses. Northern has lost to UGF just once in the last three years.
Things are very much different this season. The Argos have a new coach, several new players and a whole new outlook.
New head coach Arunas Duda is slowly turning the UGF volleyball program with an infusion of enthusiasm and talent.
"He's a very good coach," Handley said. "He's very positive and enthusiastic and his players always play hard for him."
Handley and the Skylights have first-hand knowledge of it. Northern edged UGF 19-30, 31-29, 20-30, 30-22, 15-4 in a five-game marathon in the championship match of the Skylights Invitational volleyball tournament in August.
It was a match filled with blistering kills, back-and-forth momentum and boisterous players
"I wouldn't be surprised if it went to five games again," Handley sad. "Their record might not show it, but UGF is a very good team."
Indeed, the Argos are 5-10 overall and 1-3 in the Frontier Conference, but they have lost some very close matches this season and are more than capable of ending the Skylights' perfect home record.
The Argos are coming off a big 31-29, 30-20, 27-30, 30-25 win over Lewis-Clark State on Saturday in Great Falls.
Outside hitter Brittany Prater gave Northern headaches in the first meeting with her explosive hitting ability. Prater earned all-tournament honors in the Northern tournament.
Another player who caused the Skylights problems was freshman middle blocker Ashley Harris. At 6-2, Harris was a key blocker against Northern's big hitters.
UGF also gets solid production from Becky Radiel and middle blocker Deidre Ranf along with setter Hayley Wright and libero Denise McLain.
Prater has been hobbled by a sprained ankle in recent week's, but has played in the last two conference matches, and played fairly well.
"She's very tough," Handley said. "Our blocking needs to be much better, especially with their outside hitters."
Northern's blocking hasn't been bad thus far this season. As a team, the Skylights lead the Frontier Conference in blocking at more than three blocks per game. Middle blockers Jeanna McPherson and Tera O'Haire played extremely well this past weekend, and it must continue tonight.
Offensively, Jordan Fox has been one of the most consistent producers for Northern and in the conference. She is averaging close to four kills per game and has led the team in kills in almost every match. She is joined up front by outside hitters Jasmine Mitchell and Julie Henderson.
There may be some uncertainty of who will be getting the front line the ball. Setter Emilee Madsen, who was named Frontier Conference setter of the week for her performance this past weekend, is battling the flu and may not play. Handley said it would be a game-time decision for Madsen.
If Madsen can't go, either Kelly Thorpe will move back to setter from libero, or Christine Smith will take care of the setting duties.
The Skylights' overall depth offers them some options.
There isn't a shortage of players who will be ready to play tonight.
"I love that the girls get really fired up to play Great Falls," Handley said. "But I don't want them to be too fired up. We need to play with some self-control and some poise."